She Knows Where She's Going

The title on the announcement card for Sigrid Sandstrom's exhibit at Inman Gallery reads, "I Know Where I'm Going!" Must be nice to be possessed of such certainty, to assume you have such control over your life. Bloody cheeky, really. Typical artistic arrogance. Who does she think she is anyway -- Picasso?

It turns out that the title is cribbed from a 1945 British film in which Wendy Hiller plays a "modern" woman who, determined to have the finer things in life, is en route to marry a wealthy, knighted businessman when she is stranded by bad weather in a Scottish coastal town. Of course, she falls in love with a young naval officer, and, of course, she stubbornly persists in her attempts to commit her marriage of convenience, and, of course, in keeping with the conventions of romance, she finally comes to her senses. Apparently, the Scottish landscape and climate are integral to the film's appeal.

A native of Sweden and a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art, Sandstrom is making her Texas solo debut with this show. (She has two works in the Contemporary Arts Museum's "Pertaining to Painting" exhibit as well.) A graduate of the MFA program at the Yale University School of Art, Sandstrom spent part of a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, as well as on a grant program in Greenland before coming to the Gulf Coast (presumably to thaw out).

Sandstrom's subject matter is landscape: large fantastical landscapes. The painting that shares the show's title, I Know Where I'm Going! (2002), for instance, is a seven-foot-by-eight-foot depiction of a mountain, but one you're not likely to ever come across. The mountain is covered in blue-tinged snow, suggesting moonlight and intense cold. Down the center right of the mountain, torrents of water cascade, flowing around rocky outcroppings and snow fields. And on the snowy finger of one rock, approximately three-quarters of the way down the painting, dwarfed by the mountain and the cascades, is…a red British telephone box! A direct reference to the film, the telephone box counters the painting's representational language, underscoring its origin in the artist's imagination and not in the objective world.

Sandstrom also undermines her subject matter by painting on masonite panels. In this painting and in Yellow Landscape with Moons (2001), the panels are square, imposing on these landscapes a grid, the quintessential modernist format. In an untitled work in the CAM show, the panels are cut more interestingly to form lines of perspective focusing on a central rectangle that, in the composition of the painting, forms a vortex, rushing dizzyingly away from the foreground and the viewer. The vanishing point of classical perspective becomes almost a joke in these paintings. In Yellow Landscape, Sandstrom uses the room's architecture to define the perspective: The vanishing point is located near the corner, where you're often described as being when you're feeling trapped.

One of the artist's stated interests in this work is the hierarchies that are created by perspective and scale. What happens if a red telephone box is introduced into a dark, tumultuous mountain scene? What happens if there are hundreds of moons instead of one, and not all of them are in the sky? One thing that happens is that abstraction creeps into representation, bringing a poetic narrative with it. In addition, surrealism overlays romanticism (no contradiction there), while the organizing modernist grid is challenged and resisted. A certain tension is put into play, and kept there. In Yellow Landscape, two small lonely fires signal each other from opposite ends of this vast (18-foot) grid and across the vanishing point.

Two works related to the title, I Know What I Want and I Know Where You've Been (both 2002), couldn't be more different; the former is a collage of photographs of waterfalls from travel ads and brochures, arranged to form one loooong, staggered waterfall; the latter is a pair of blue skis -- more than 25 feet long, upturned at each end and impossibly narrow -- arranged so that one end is in a plow position, for braking, while the other end is splayed in the skating position, for climbing.

The other surprise of the show is a series of oils on canvas titled On The Horizon I -- IX (2002). These are the most recent works in the show, and they depict an area in northern Sweden where Sandstrom's family owns some land and a vacation home. Ranging in size from three by five inches to 14 by 16 inches, they are lushly painted, the oil laid on in quick, long expressionist strokes. These paintings (numbers one through eight were hung together in a loose salon style, approximating the modernist grid) view the land from different angles; one of the smallest, for example, is all pale sky and clouds with just the tip of the mountain that dominates the other landscapes peeking into the frame. Though still concerned with perspective, they are the least conceptual works in the show. The artist says that she intended to make only one or two of these paintings but they just kept coming.

In this series, Sandstrom's love of landscape is given freer rein. Here we see the roots of the romantic sensibility that, in the rest of her work, mediates between the hierarchies of those two poles of Western artistic tradition: classical perspective and the modernist grid.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Devine